Reflections on fear and harmony
When I was a kid, singing “in the round” used to terrify me. When do I come in? What if I forget the words or the tune? As much as I loved singing, I could never block out the other group, so no matter how hard I tried to focus, I got confused.
As an adult, I still need time to digest and learn things; as a small child, I experienced a lot of panic when confronted with the task of singing this way. The instructions were usually just a few quick words, and sometimes while the teacher was simultaneously pointing at the words on the board. My brain did not learn to multitask until many years later (or “task-switch,” as some prefer to call it; psychologists now tell us that we cannot actually multitask, and I was early proof). And I know that during these instructions I and a few others felt our faces get hot, our palms sweaty and our mouths dry up.
The result, however, was powerful and moving. The feeling of connecting your voice with those of others and making that beautiful music—there’s almost nothing like it.
A few months back, when I sat as an online congregant at my church, I heard the choir start a round and experienced the same panic—even though I wasn’t there in person, even though I knew I just had to sit quietly and listen or join in as I wished. I knew there’d be no judgement, no degree of failure. Still, the old signs were there—the heat of my face and the turmoil in my stomach. It was certainly uncomfortable. But I worked my way through it.
Concurrently I am also working my way through many feelings I have about religion and church in general, having residential school trauma set deeply in my DNA. My granny Siamelaht, the matriarch of our Coast Salish family, embraced the church and thought it was a good thing, and promoted it as such. But I often wondered how she could do that after having her two daughters taken from her, both when they reached the age of three, to go live at St. Mary’s Residential School, near Mission, B.C. Each of her daughters ended up attending that “school” for a decade.
Of course, I have the gift of hindsight. Now the truth is out about what happened at that and similar institutions, and the trauma they caused and still cause generations later is evident. The fact that her daughters came home from their experience not only alive but strict Roman Catholics, with an equal knowledge of Latin and Skwx_wú7mesh, perhaps made her feel that her family could indeed move successfully into the new world the settlers continued to construct around her. At least, that’s the thought that I need to hang onto, because I know that was truly a goal for her: that her daughters would be able to live side by side with the new people in their new world, and be able to acclimate to change—a goal that remains for us today.
I realize, as I learn to decipher church and religion and their place in my life, that there will be pain and fear in unravelling the past, and there should also be questions. There should always be discourse, and evolution to keep us all safe, the balance of power resting with no one person or entity, to help ensure the past is never repeated. I am also finding that there is a place where my First Nations heritage and Christian religion do meet: in the tradition they share of profound gratitude for the gifts given to us by the Creator, such as the land that I live on and the bounty it provides. It’s in the respect these traditions show for life and people, and all that is good and kind.
I have recently been reading a lot about that meeting of First Nations spirituality and the Anglican church, and while for me there there is still much pain from the harm that has come from the meeting of these cultures, I feel that there is also much joy to be found. I think Nii K’an Kwsdins (Jerry Adams), now-retired missioner for Indigenous justice ministries in the diocese of New Westminster, said it well in his 2019 article, “Beyond the Anger”:* “My grandparents were not angry people—they were respectful, they worked hard, they turned to God and they coped. And that’s the example they left for me to follow.” This speaks to me as I believe it’s the path my granny Siamelaht took, and I’m happy and honoured to follow in her footsteps.
I believe that for many Indigenous people, finding a better relationship with the church is like finding a way to sing in the round was for me. Both mean overcoming fear at the beginning—but both can be full of goodness in the end. It’s about raising our voices up through the wound in our common song of praise, and moving forward in the harmonies of shared life.
Jenn Ashton is an award-winning Coast Salish author and visual artist. Her book of short stories, People Like Frank and Other Stories from the Edge of Normal, was shortlisted for the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award. She worships at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in North Vancouver.